Nothing like as pretentious as the concept sounds. Which is a good thing. Obv.
Reading the EIFF guide, you'd have thought that this film was clever enough to go off and study at the Sorbonne. "Measures the stories of four individuals...against the principles of Euripidean dramatic structure"? Crikey. I'm far too dimwitted to appreciate that sort of thing. Still, due to scheduling issues I'd nothing better to do for an hour and a half, and perhaps one of the aspects of classical Greek dramas would turn out to be people setting themselves on fire and hurling themselves off a building. Unlikely, I know, but I choose to live in a happy world of perpetual hope.
Tragically, there was no pyrotechnical pavement-cranium interface scenarios on display, but neither was there the dissertation level treatment that I think I'd be forgiven for expecting. Essentially, what we have here is a talking heads style documentary of four people relating parts of their life story, with interstitial puppet shows (!) representing what this uncultured oaf will take as read as being the principles of Euripidean dramatic structure, although this seems to be a fancy, Ivory Towers, French way of saying "start, middle, end".
The four talking heads featured here have somewhere between little and nothing to do with one another, aside from their single minded devotion to their chosen course of action before a sudden realisation that they're going in entirely the wrong direction. Hans Joachim Klein is the most infamous of the four, a notorious-ish terrorist, member of the Baader-Meinhoff group and part of the notorious 1975 OPEC raid along with Carlos the Jackal. Joe Loya spent much of his childhood being brutally beaten by his father, before stabbing him and taking up a career in bank robbery. Mark Pierpont met with an unfortunate collision between 'believing in God' and 'being gay', and spent a good portion of his life convincing both himself and others that one could pray oneself straight.
Slightly less momentously, Mark Salzman was bullied terribly as a child before seeing an episode of Kung Fu, deciding to channel David Carradine and take up chop-sockey at a school run by a chap who, as evidenced by Salzman's hilarious anecdotes, is as crazy as Mad Frankie Fraser, albeit without the gentlemanly attitude. In absolute terms, there's a solid argument for saying that Salzman's segments aren't of the same import as the others, but they provide a welcome and undeniably effective spot of comic relief.
Indeed, all of the interviewees give compelling accounts of the motivations behind their actions as protagonists in their own life dramas, even as we disagree with their motives. It's all good, enthralling stuff and despite some of the comments that director Jessica Yu has been coming out with in previous press calls it's all very easy to follow. I suppose directors have to take some care not to be seen to be calling their audience stupid, but I have no such restraints - if you find this film difficult to follow you're a total dummy.
Let's face it, if a film can contain a puppet show voiced in ancient Greek (some of which are voiced by Star Trek's eminently useless Deanna Troi, Marina Sirtis) and still not come across as overwhelmingly pretentious then it must be doing something right, and that's certainly the case with Protagonist. If you can see it, you should.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.